One of the most important road trips the Stanford men’s basketball team will have made this season never shows up on the schedule, in the team’s record or total miles traveled.
In September, the Cardinal gathered around to support one of their own after junior forward Dwight Powell lost his mother. The coaches and several players flew to Toronto for the funeral.
Jacqueline Weir died on Sept. 13 in Boston after a short fight with cancer, three months shy of her 54th birthday. Powell’s coaches visited the hospital in the Boston area, where Weir worked and lived. And Stanford received permission from the NCAA to fly the players from Powell’s recruiting class to Canada to be there for him at the memorial.
”It was important, for sure,” Powell said. ”My friends in my life are my family. The team is my family, so it meant a lot for them to come out there. I have a really good support group in Toronto as well, some guys I played with in high school.”
Coach Johnny Dawkins realizes the importance of everyone supporting Powell, an only child attending college so far from home. Dawkins already had a close-knit group in the reigning NIT champions, who hope last season’s special run is only a preview of bigger things for the program this March in the NCAA tournament. Stanford hasn’t been since 2008, and not yet under fifth-year coach Dawkins.
Powell will be an integral part in getting Stanford there. Keeping him in the right frame of mind as he continues to mourn his mother has been a joint effort.
Dawkins considers the trip to Toronto one that showed Powell just how much support, and how many brothers, he has within his own locker room, and on campus.
”Absolutely,” Dawkins said. ”That’s what it’s about. It was very unfortunate what happened to his mom, and very sudden. It really puts it in perspective when something happens to a young man and a family. The players understand that. His teammates and his coaches are a big part of his life. It’s important to rally around him.”
The Cardinal (6-3) are finishing up their annual two-week break for final exams before returning to the court to host UC Davis on Saturday, the first of four remaining nonconference games ahead of Pac-12 play. Stanford is picked fourth in the conference.
Powell has led Stanford in scoring three times already, including going off for a career-high 29 points in a 71-58 victory against Denver on Dec. 2. He is averaging 14.2 points per game, second to Chasson Randle’s 14.7, while also pulling down 6.9 rebounds.
”This is the best place for me to be right now. First of all, it’s a different country, so I don’t even have too much family except for the team,” Powell said. ”I can’t really think of anyone else I’d rather lean on right now than my teammates. Regardless of what goes on, they can take my mind off things. They can put my mind on the things I need to think about sometimes and help me talk things out, just be there.
”I feel very lucky to have the team that I have, just for that reason. It also translates onto the court, that closeness, that trust.”
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Powell always felt comfortable on The Farm and in the Bay Area. He chose Stanford over Harvard and Georgia Tech.
Yet Powell was a late bloomer when it came to basketball, first playing volleyball and competing in the high jump in track. Once Powell picked up hoops, he moved to Florida at age 16 to attend the IMG Academy and prepare for college.
He emerged as an impact player late last season for Stanford, averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds during the Cardinal’s five-game NIT title run while shooting 65.4 percent from the field. He started just 11 times but played in 35 games and averaged 5.8 points and 4.6 rebounds overall.
Powell’s biggest challenge so far with an increased role and more responsibility has been keeping his emotions in check. In a 70-62 loss to Belmont at home in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 18, Powell fouled out in only seven minutes, sitting down for good early in the second half.
”He’s playing with a heightened focus,” Dawkins said. ”He’s just so focused right now that my biggest thing is that he stays level and doesn’t get too emotional. I talk to him a lot about it and how you approach the game — never get too high or too low.”
Powell attended Canada Basketball’s senior men’s national team training camp in late August in Toronto. By the time he returned to Boston to see his mom, she was hospitalized and deteriorating quickly. The breast cancer had spread to her liver.
”I think she had a feeling for a couple of months but she didn’t want to burden me,” Powell said. ”She kind of left it unattended.”
Teammate and roommate Josh Huestis was the one to tell Powell he would have dear friends coming to Canada to help him in the grieving process.
”We’re all really close with Dwight. He’s one of my best friends,” Huestis said. ”Our coaches talked to us and proposed that we go out there for the funeral. All the guys thought it was a great idea. I can’t imagine what he was going through. It was the right move. He was in Toronto and I had been talking to him. I told him we would be coming out there and he was really thankful for that, just to have some familiar faces around, especially in such a hard time.”
It’s no surprise that before and after each practice Stanford’s players gather for a cheer of ”Family!” These guys truly consider themselves brothers.
That Toronto trip only helped cement the bond.
”The fact we were able to go out there just brings us so much closer together,” Huestis said. ”It shows we’re not just a team but a family, too.”
The Cardinal were thrilled to capture a national championship and get the taste of winning their final game, but both Powell and Huestis called it ”bittersweet.”
There have been many important messages for this bunch over the past year.
Earlier this season, Stanford shot a video in the locker room after practice and sent it to NFL star Ray Lewis, who paid the team a surprise visit at Madison Square Garden and delivered a spirited speech before the NIT semifinal game against Massachusetts. The Cardinal players wanted to encourage the injured Ravens linebacker and spiritual leader in his rehab from a torn triceps after he did so much to pump them up before a key game. Stanford went on for a commanding win against Minnesota in the championship game.
Not that Powell needs much to inspire him at the moment. Huestis sure won’t question his teammate’s motivation.
”The passing of his mom put everything in perspective for him. Nothing’s given in life, nothing guaranteed,” Huestis said. ”Obviously his mom is in the forefront of his mind.”
Exactly, Powell said.
”Everything I do is in her memory,” he said. ”Absolutely.”